Romesh Gunesekera: “Roadkill”

Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Romesh Gunesekera’s “Roadkill” was originally published in the December 2, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.

Click for a larger image.

Click for a larger image.

Betsy

Romesh Gunesekera, in both his story, “Roadkill,” and in his interview with Deborah Treisman, speaks of the effects of a long war, and of the survivors’ conflicting urges: to bury the past on the on hand or to inquire into it on the other.

He is speaking, of course, about the long civil war in his homeland. Sri Lanka suffered a twenty-seven year civil war when the minority Tamils attempted to secede. This war was brutal on both sides, and was only concluded in 2009. Gunesekera speaks about the small window available now for writers to record the aftermath.

In his interview, he mentions complicity, and in his story, silence is a character. In both those regards, this story is partner to Colm Toibin’s “Summer of ‘38.” Michael Ondaatje’s “Anil’s Ghost” also addressed the buried truths of the Sri Lankan civil war. For what will apparently be a book of linked stories, Gunesekera chooses a taxi driver as his speaker and he uses a style more initially accessible than Ondaatje. I welcome that accessible style when diving into a complicated country with a complicated political situation.

Vasantha, a taxi-driver, is conveying a rich man and his pregnant wife to the north, where they intend to look at a future home. They stop in an attractive new hotel in Kilinochchi, where until recently only the rubble of the violent war had stood. The assistant hotel manager is a young woman who can kill a rat with a bottle of beer, a woman who seems “to come from . . . somewhere dark and hungry and deep.”

She and Vasantha seem attracted to each other, but they speak as if from opposite sides. Even though she fails to conceal the scar that is sometimes visible from beneath her collar, she prefers concealment. She remarks that it is best to “bury the dead and move on.” In contrast, Vasantha is interested in knowing what’s what, saying, “We know so little, and the little we do know we get so muddled.”

“After a war, it is best not to ask about the past.” says the hotel manager. Privately, Vasantha thinks, “That is not true, I thought. After such a calamity, surely one should? How else will we know what really happened?”

In his interview, Gunesekera says people have a tendency “to seek safety in numbness.”

At this point I am reminded of the 1948 story by Vladimir Nabokov, “Symbols and Signs.” In that story, a schizophrenic boy appears to represent the post war — post holocaust reality for an immigrant Jewish family from Russia. Between the losses of the Holocaust and the 20 million deaths Russia suffered in World War II, mute schizophrenia seems an appropriate reaction. Gunesekera’s assistant hotel manager lives in this same nether world of silenced memory.

Vasantha’s story has a lot to recommend it: the post war setting, the unusual country, the taxi driver’s blunt narrative, the haunting assistant hotel manager and her half hidden scar, and the way he uses the images of big cats, the rat, and the little road-killed dog to allude to more than even he is at present able to articulate.

13 thoughts on “Romesh Gunesekera: “Roadkill””

  1. avataram says:

    Read the story as soon as it came out. Gunesekera is one of Sri Lanka’s greatest writers. Monkfish Moon, his first collection of short stories was published in 1992 to considerable acclaim. His first novel, Reef, was nominated for various prizes and was a Booker prize finalist in 1994. It is great that he is writing a series of connected stories for a collection titled “Noontide toll”.

    It is set in present day Sri Lanka, 4 years after the civil war ended. A tamil couple living in Malaysia has bought a house in Kilinochchi, and plan to renovate it. The wife is pregnant, and the renovation will be done in time for the child’s arrival.

    This is significant as for many years no one could even travel to Kilinochchi. The pregnant rider is able to tell the driver to take the turns slowly – four years earlier, everyone would be afraid of landmines or of being ambushed.

    But for some, like Miss Saraswati, the hotel manager, it is as if the civil war never ended. In “This week in fiction”, Gunesekera says that he has a clear idea of what she may have been through, but to say more would be to intrude too much.”. Is she a former member of the LTTE death squad – the black tigers who were suicide bombers, who assassinated a Sri Lankan President and an Indian Prime Minister among others? Or is she a victim of the LTTE, who was almost necklaced to death?

    Triesman clearly has not read the story well. The roadkill here is not the rat. Vasantha talks about his dog which was a roadkill. But as Gunesekera says in his last answer in the Q&A, one has to stop and think why it is the title of the story.

  2. Trevor says:

    Betsy’s thoughts have been added above.

  3. avataram says:

    Betsy says – “She and Vasantha seem attracted to each other, but they speak as if from opposite sides.”

    Saraswati is a Tamil name and Vasantha is a Sinhalese name – Just realized on Betsy’s comment that Gunesekera does not explicitly mention this in the story.

  4. Betsy says:

    avataram – Both of your comments are/were so very helpful. I had no idea first time around that the couple traveling north were Tamil. Knowing that makes me think of the way wealth will soon smooth over the rubble and bury the past. I like Gunesekera’s idea that he has only so much time to create a record.

  5. Paul Epstein says:

    avataram says “Triesman [sic] clearly has not read the story well.” I disagree with that. Yes, the death of the dog satisfies the definition of “roadkill” more closely. However, the rat’s death is emphasised far more, and given far more space than the dog’s death.
    I therefore also assumed that the title refers to the rat’s death. The symbolic purpose of the dog’s death, and the reason for the title, are aspects that would elude most readers. Writers need to take responsibility for what the readership are likely to take away. Obviously, compared to most readers, avataram is relatively an expert on the politics and culture of Sri Lanka, and got more out of the story than I did, but if many aspects of the story would be missed by those without this background, then more of the background needed to be given.

    Paul Epstein

  6. avataram says:

    Paul Epstein is right. Gunesekera supplies some background information in the first paragraph, but maybe it is not enough. “Roadkill” is one of a series of connected stories Gunesekera is writing (or has written) and it is possible that there is more background information in other stories. As a native tamil speaker who lived in Sri Lanka as a child, I simply assumed the missing background information from names, places etc, in a way that will be difficult for a person without any connection to Sri Lanka.

    But in a lot of Gunesekera stories, many things are left unsaid.

    Also, I was wrong in saying Treisman has not read the story well. The illustrator, Leslie Herman has drawn a large rat with the title Road Kill in the background, and that is confusing for most readers, Treisman included. It is possible that the illustrator read the story, but not “This Week in Fiction”, where Gunesekera clearly says the killing of the rat was intentional, so it was not the Roadkill.

  7. avataram says:

    Also Gunesekera is revered in Sri Lanka and in the Sri Lankan diaspora – among Sinhalese as well as Tamils. Apart from a wrong illustration, it seems offensive to put his name on the rat. I have no idea what the editors/illustrators in TNY are smoking these days.

  8. Ken says:

    I don’t think a writer has to explain all the socio-historical context of a story for it to be engaging and rewarding. I don’t think a reader needs all this background. I got a lot out of this without knowing many of the fine points. I simply looked into other issues–the dialectic of light and dark, for instance. How one tries to blot out memroy (yet keep one’s eyes open as a driver!) and yet want to shine a light into the past (curiosity) and how in the dark the inability to truly blot it all out is more pronounced. The scene where he walks out into the night and the assistant manager (a wonderful character who I would love to know more about) shines a brief light, illuminates an animal, and then it’s darker than ever is wonderful. I thought this was a jewel–a very small narrative which speaks volumes about pain, loss, trauma, rememberance and perseverance.

  9. winstonsdad says:

    Oh this one seems to have stirred up some real debate I have read monkfish moon and Reef and then not read anything else by him to the last novel that wasn’t set in Sri Lanka ,I not sure we need more Info maybe leaving it out will make people find the horrors of the civli conflict in Sri Lanka and maybe shine a light on the plight of the Tamils ,all the best stu

  10. avataram says:

    Thanksgiving Dinner Host: Has everyone read the latest Gunesekera? Whoever had not read it was given a copy of TNY so he/she could come up to speed. Various comments in the discussion – my explanatory notes are in brackets

    Comment #1: It is amazing how the Arunachalams’ route follows the same route as followed by the SL army in Eelam War IV. At that time, the final stop in Jaffna ended in destruction of Pudhukudiyuruppu (literally, new settlement) and the deaths of many tamils. This story is a mirror image- it is ending in a house construction (also Pudhukudiyiruppu) and childbirth.

    #2: For 27 years, all the talk was about Lions (Sinhala comes from Sinha or Lion in Sanskrit) and Tigers (The Tamil rebels called themselves the Liberation Tigers). Gunesekera rightly says that we died like that rat (Sinhalese killed in surprise attacks by Tamil Tigers) or like that Dog (Tamils who tried to escape the SL army siege in Jaffna and were killed by the army as collateral damage). So, the Roadkill of the story are definitely the Tamils, who died as collateral damage in Jaffna.

    #3. Even after a Roadkill, a driver pauses and reflects. After killing some 30,000 tamils in Jaffna, the current SL government has never paused or reflected or apologized. They have simply gone on to greater triumphalism and censorship.

    #4: The driver is an idiot. If I saw that girl throwing the beer bottle with deadly accuracy and killing the rat, I would have left for Colombo in the middle of the night. The Arunachalams, being tamils, could have found another taxi from Kilinochchi to Jaffna. Why wait for the night sentry routine and the calloused trigger finger?

    #5. The assistant manager gave the driver a free (second) beer. She must have known that the first bottle was empty.

    #6 Yes. She was also re-arming herself in case another rat appeared! Typical Tiger.

    #7 Gunesekera is forced to write the story like a parable simply to avoid the current censorship in SL. If they knew what he was talking about, they will ban the book & TNY immediately. They will also interview every assistant manager of a hotel in Kilinochchi and arrest all Saraswatis. If they see that it is about a rat and a dog, they will not do anything.

    As Ken remarked, the story can be read at many levels, a background in SL politics /culture may help, but it is not necessary. Each person understands a Gunesekera story his/her own way. Many things are left unsaid, many interpretations possible.

  11. Michael says:

    As someone completely ignorant of Sri Lankan political history, I Googled a bit to make sense of both the geography and conflict referenced, but didn’t research any more deeply than that.

    I enjoyed it very much and found the night description of the hotel manager searching for something in the ink-black night an old habit hard to break, maybe.

    Ignorant as I am, to me the roadkill in this story is what isn’t present in this story:

    –the narrator’s understanding of a survivor’s depth of sorrow
    –a suitable animal to fight in the night, or a sense of meaningfulness to mitigate loss, and
    –passion and compassion.

    This is a story of a different sort of war atrocity, a diminishment of possibility for two people to realize their potential for meaningful connection.

  12. danthelawyer says:

    This was the first New Yorker story in a long time that I’ve really liked. And I definitely appreciate avataram’s contributions. That said, I think he got it right the first time in saying that Treisman hadn’t read the story closely, since she specifically asked Gunesekera, “Why did you choose the title “Roadkill” for this story? Is that dead rat in the hotel dining room symbolic of something larger?”

  13. avataram – your astute comments – particularly Thanksgiving Dinner comments #1, #2, #3 – tied in some historical points of which I was ignorant; thank you.

Leave a Reply